Foggy Bottom is not a redoubt of right-wing conservatives. Republican presidents do send over the names of a handful of political friends as ambassadorial candidates, but they’re usually “short timers” intended to serve only through the end of an administration.
The department is run by career professionals who, like most civil servants, usually vote Democratic.
So it’s a bit of a surprise that the American Foreign Service Association, which represents career Foreign Service officers, is so embarrassed by several of President Obama’s nominees that it’s willing to sue.
The president nominated a producer of soap operas, Colleen Bradley Bell, to be the U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Good as she may be in the suds, she was no Emmy-winning performer at her Senate confirmation hearing. She’s lucky she didn’t get the hook.
She was ignorant of what’s going on in Hungary, or why the United States has such a close interest in a country that’s a member of both NATO and the European Union.
Against the turmoil playing out in Eastern Europe, this is clearly not the time or place for amateur hour, even if the amateurs are friends or donors with deep pockets.
George Tsunis, the president’s nominee to Norway, misidentified the country’s form of government, not realizing it is a constitutional monarchy, and identified one of the parties in the governing coalition as radical and undeserving.
Noah Bryson Mamet, Mr. Obama’s choice to be ambassador to Argentina, had to concede that he had never been to Argentina. That was too much even for the Democratic senators, who returned the Mamet paperwork to the White House. The other two choices are pending.
The Foreign Service officers want the administration to endorse the qualifications of its nominees in writing, by publishing “Certificates of Demonstrated Competence.”
The president and his men only reluctantly released some of this documentation last week after the American Foreign Service Association threatened to sue to force production of the certificates.
“AFSA remains concerned about the qualifications of several recent nominees,” the organization said. “AFSA’s goal is to ensure that the nation has the most qualified persons serving as ambassadors. AFSA believes that the president and the American people deserve nothing less.”
A panel of former diplomats put the guidelines together, setting out how leadership, policymaking and management skills, knowledge of the region, and even how to get along with people are important qualifications for an ambassador.
Presidents shouldn’t have to be told that these considerations are important, and representing the United States in a troubled place can be, as we have lately seen, even a matter of life and death.
A little more than a third of Mr. Obama’s picks have been political appointees. He’s entitled. Choosing personal friends and political party allies to be ambassador is commonplace, but presidents have to be careful who they send abroad.